We live in the world where the term “business as usual” has become an oxymoron. From digitisation, to augmentation and automation, science fiction becomes science fact.
Demographic changes, shifts of power, globalisation, economic and political instability, hyper-connectivity, and rapidly changing customer expectations are just a few items on a long list of factors that contribute to unprecedented, exponential change happening right in front of our eyes.
As a result of this perfect storm of changes, the workplace today is nothing like it used to be. And - it’s no surprise that the industrial era approaches to management and employee engagement don’t seem to cut it any more.
The proof is in the pudding: according to Gallop’s recent State of the Global Workplace report, 85% of employees globally are not engaged or actively disengaged at work. This number is even higher in Western Europe.
Let me bring this closer to home: it’s safe to say that the majority of people on your team don’t give you their best effort nor their best ideas. Statistically speaking, only 1 out of 10 people on your team is actively enegaged and as many as 3 out of 10 had (mentally) quit their jobs a while ago - without telling anyone!
And in case you've been wondering whether it's relevant to you or whether engagement will still be important in the future, the answer is a resounding "yes". In spite of the rise of artificial intelligence, deep learning and smart algorithms, it doesn't look like it will be possible for teams and organisations to survive without fully tapping into their (human) team’s potential.
According to the futurist, Gerd Leonhard:
Human traits such as creativity, imagination, and intuition will be even more important in the future. And we'll need to go beyond technology and data to reach human insights and wisdom.
What that means for you and your team is this: to survive in the future, you'll need all hands, minds (and hearts) on deck. You'll also need everyone to be on top of their game.
So how do you get everyone on board, engaged, living up to their full potential, continuously gaining insights and coming up with game-changing ideas?
Clearly, the solutions to our 21st century problems are not straightforward.
But paradoxically, one of the pathways into the future points us to our primordial nature and intrinsic human needs.
In spite of the huge amount of tech we have at our fingertips, the way our brains work hasn't changed much since the time of Socrates. We still crave connection with others, intellectual stimulation, a sense of being valued, respected and engaged. We seek opportunities to actively contribute, solve complex problems and accomplish meaningful work.
So it shouldn't come as a surprise that one of the most powerful tools to fulfil our needs and reach human insight and wisdom was developed and practised millennia ago. It's called... dialogue.
In Ancient Greece, διάλογος (which literally means “through word”) referred to Socrates-style conversations, which proceeded by means of questions and answers. These conversations created a free-flow of meaning, which allowed its participants to discover insights that otherwise wouldn’t be attainable to them individually.
In teams that intentionally cultivate a culture of dialogue, people genuinely try to access different mindsets and perspectives to enable discovery, innovation and growth.
Like with any other art form, it takes practice to become good at dialogue and there are specific micro-skills that you can work on to master it. Here are the top five:
Being present means being fully focused on what’s happening in the moment, on the other person and on what’s emerging in the conversation. In the era of constant distraction, this is a challenging skill to master. But for true dialogue to take place, both parties need to be there, 100 percent. You won’t be able to pull it off while simultaneously scanning your emails or mentally updating your “to-do” list. In the moment techniques that can help maintain presence include connecting to your breath and grounding (putting both of your feet firmly on the ground). Practicing meditation and mindfulness are hugely beneficial in the long term.
In one of CultureLab’s interviews, the Israeli orchestra conductor, Itay Talgam, talked about keynote listening. He coined this terms to describe the kind of listening that sets the agenda for the conversation and stems from our desire to really hear and understand. It involves gradually dimming our biases and judgements in order to experience the true story. Which leads us to the three remaining micro skills: openness, curiosity and suspending judgement.
For true dialogue to take place we need to be open to the perspective of our counterpart. Openness entails allowing or even encouraging the other person to fully express their views. While we don’t have to agree with them, we recognise their perspective as valid in that it contributes to our understanding of the whole picture. On the flip slide, there's being open and honest about our own point of view, our thoughts and ideas. Only by putting all perspectives together, can we co-create good understanding of the issue at hand.
People say that the mother of all inventions is necessity. I disagree. It’s curiosity.
I have no special talents, I am only passionately curious. - Albert Einstein
Genuine curiosity leads us to unexpected discoveries, enables to generate innovative solutions and reach higher levels of understanding. In his book, “A Curious Mind: The Secret to a Bigger Life”, Brian Grazer said:
Curiosity starts out as an impulse, an urge, but it pops out into the world as something more active, more searching - a question.
Great questions come from a place of curiosity. They are the rocket fuel of a good dialogue. But in order to ask genuinely curious questions we need the next skill.
Suspending judgment is all about giving ourselves a bit more time to remain curious and listen to others for a little longer. It’s about holding judgement back long enough to understand what’s being expressed and noticing what emerges. It doesn’t mean “avoiding judgment”, just delaying it.
When team members engage in genuine dialogue on regular basis, people begin to make meaning and generate ideas in a uniquely collaborative manner. This opens a gateway to human insights and wisdom that otherwise would remain untapped.
The great thing with dialogue is that you don’t even have to be a manager to practise it. In dialogue everyone is equal and encouraged to challenge the status quo, bring their perspectives, ideas and views.
However, changing the way people interact with one another is not easy. When pushed for change, every complex system (and any team is a complex system) resists. This is what homeostasis is all about.
So what helps to cultivate a culture of dialogue is getting the whole team understand the "why" behind using a different way of interacting, as well as of the key principles of dialogue. Creating opportuniteis for teams to practise dialogue together and achieve positive results in the process is one of the critical elements of successfully making the change.